Aaron Rodgers says Packers' young receivers could flourish with some fine-tuning
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers has some unpopular opinions, no doubt, but saying that wide receiver is the easiest offensive position to learn in the NFL might make some of his former teammates take to Twitter and really let him have it.
Not that he wouldn’t be used to it.
His point was that maybe the Green Bay Packers aren’t in the dire straits at the position some people think because they have some young players who with some fine-tuning could flourish in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
The first week of training camp has featured some better-than-expected receiving performances from a couple of young players, none of whom is Christian Watson, the second-round pick the Packers hoped would carry a decent load this season.
Fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs and 2021 third-round pick Amari Rodgers have consistently made clutch catches in practice and will be a part of the receiver rotation this year if their play remains on an upward trajectory. Seventh-round pick Samori Toure and undrafted free agent Danny Davis have flashed potential, too.
It’s doubtful any of them will make people forget Davante Adams, but barring a trade or significant free-agent signing, Watson and some of the others are going to be a part of the offense this season. How far they go will depend on whether they can keep from being buried under the layers of offense that will get piled on as the regular season gets near.
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“I think we're just going to have to throw some of them in the fire, to be honest,” Rodgers said. “We're not sure obviously when Christian will be back (from knee surgery) but there’s going to be in the two-deep (rotation) — which plays a number of snaps — young players.”
Rodgers pointed out that other than Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, there aren’t many receivers who have played with him. Veteran Sammy Watkins should adapt fairly quickly given he has played in LaFleur’s offense before, but Juwann Winfree, Malik Taylor and Amari Rodgers have barely had a taste of what it’s like being a top three or four receiver.
“And then you’ve got a couple of rookies and so we're going to have to throw them in the fire and have a little learning process,” Rodgers said. “I think that's where the patience and the expectations — reasonable expectations — will be very important. That being said, there'll be a lot of conversations between now and Game 1, and the expectation will be to be able to recall these important conversations and go out and execute and just be yourself.”
The current stage the young receivers are in is somewhere between “I’m starting to get this” and “Oops.” They have been through a full installation of the offense during the offseason, and are currently plowing through it a second time, but everything is intensified because in training camp the pace is faster, and the defense is running schemes to stop the offense.
Rodgers said the number of mental errors is too high, but at this point in camp, mistakes are expected.
The most common mistakes are knowing what route to run based on which side of the formation the receiver is on. The tricky part is that assignments can change when a player goes in motion and the formation changes.
“A lot of times you call two concepts,” Rodgers said, referring to two route combinations. “One side is a two-man concept. The other side is two-man concept. But they forget with some of the motions, what side am I on? Am I on the ‘hammer’ side? Am I the ‘arrow’ side? Am I on the ‘all-go’ side? Am I on the ‘out’ side?
“So, they’re mixing up which side they're on. And then just little details and certain things: depth of routes, adjustments of routes, if it's a two-in-one route — meaning based on certain coverage, you're going to run this route; if it's a different coverage, you run the other route — mixing those things up. This offense is very complex, and you throw in the Matt LaFleur specials, all these motions, it really stresses those guys out.”
There is a reason that over the past 21 seasons only 11 rookies have had 1,000-yard receiving seasons. The only Packers rookie to have 1,000 yards receiving was Billy Howton, who did it in 1952. It may be an easy position to learn, as Rodgers contends, but it’s not easy to produce right away.
Watson has the double whammy of being injured and a rookie. He is on the physically unable to perform list after having arthroscopic surgery in mid-June, which means he can’t practice. He spends a portion of the day doing his rehab and then heads out to the practice field to mentally plant himself in one of the receiver spots each play.
Watson will discuss some of the plays with Rodgers during a break in practice, so he knows exactly what is expected of him when he returns.
“Honestly, I’m trying to learn everything from him,” Watson said. “Anytime I have a question or anything, anytime I see him doing something that I’m not really familiar with, I definitely go over there and ask him.”
The undrafted rookie Davis, who played at Wisconsin, said he spends every night going over his playbook to avoid the kind of mental mistakes that Rodgers mentioned. He said playing with fear of a mental mistake only compounds the issue and so when he does make a mistake, he corrects it and makes sure it never happens again.
“I just try to flush it and get to the next play and make sure that next time, I'm ready when my number’s called,” Davis said. “I wouldn't say it's pressure. I'm just going out there and playing without fear, playing fast and just doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Doubs has made the most eye-catching plays of any rookie and Rodgers has taken notice. He said it isn’t just the way he has attacked the team drills, but the way he has worked on his craft during the one-on-ones, a highly competitive drill where he might match up with Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes or Rasul Douglas.
The highlight of Doubs’ camp was a fingertip catch in the back corner of the end zone on a pass from Jordan Love during a third-and-goal drill. It was the prettiest catch of camp, but it wasn’t the only one Doubs has made that drew some oohs and aahs.
“It's just a matter of the mental stuff,” Rodgers said. “He's still making some mental mistakes, but you expect this. It's the approach though, and his release patterns. He catches the ball with his hands. Every single day there's been at least one kind of ‘wow’ play.
“And that's kind of rare for a young guy like that. And we've had some guys over the years kind of do that. They're all in the top 10, I think, in Packers receiving history. So, a good start for him.”
The Packers have time to decide which of their young receivers will get a shot at being in the opening day rotation. Unless something changes, it’s a good bet that more than one of them will be.